Would you be surprised to find out that nearly two-thirds of children report having an imaginary companion during their childhood? Some friends are invisible while others are personified in an object like a doll or stuffed animal. Regardless of this distinction, children consider their imaginary companion as a separate other, and engage in simulated social interactions and role-play with the imaginary companion just as they would a real friend.
Research in the past decade has provided an abundance of support for the benefit of imaginary companionship, placing the phenomena in the realm of typical development. Parents think of them as really cool and fascinating imaginative things kids do that we must know more about!
Studying imaginary companionship is not easy. First, you have to cross your fingers that a good percentage of children in your overall group will report having an imaginary friend. That is why most researchers choose to study preschoolers, who are at the height of imaginative play. Also, you hope parents can corroborate the existence of the friend, which happens about half of the time. Nevertheless, researchers typically rely on child-report to confirm the existence of an imaginary companion, along with general descriptions about the friends’ gender, personality, age, physical features, and what they do during play. As a result, we know less about the imaginary companion relationship (Is it created in the child’s likeness? If not, whose likeness and why? How long does an imaginary friend stick around?) than we do about differences between children with and without imaginary companions.
So what are some of the benefits of having an imaginary companion?
Having an imaginary companion facilitates private speech Private speech is a developmental term for talking to yourself. We all do it, especially when we are working on a challenging task like new math or trying to remember why you opened the fridge. In young children, private speech represents an important developmental transition between using language to communicate (e.g., “I want a snack”) and using language to think (e.g., planning in your head how you will put down your Legos and then eat a snack). Children can actually solve problems better (e.g., how to get the cookies off a high shelf) when they are talking to themselves than when they are instructed to solve the same problem without talking to themselves.
So how would having an imaginary companion facilitate private speech? Children engage their imaginary companions similarly in dialogue as their real friends and this imaginary back and forth series of exchanges is just practicing private speech: they are thinking, planning and taking perspective with every conversational turn.
Children with imaginary companions show stronger narrative skills
Narrative skill is the ability to retell a story from beginning to end, reporting details like characters and events, as well as the main idea. It is one of the most complex expressions of language in early childhood because it is decontextualized from real-time activities and draws heavily on working memory (keeping ideas in mind while talking) and planning (reporting details in order of how they happened).
Researchers asked children with and without imaginary companions to retell a story that was read to them and to retell a past experience (e.g., a visit to the beach). Results showed that children with imaginary companions told richer and more detailed narratives than children without imaginary companions, even though children had the same vocabulary level.
So embrace that invisible friend, encourage the pretend dialogue, and just enjoy and laugh because, as with everything with our children, it won’t last long and when it’s over you’ll be wishing for more…experience matters!